Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.16

David R. Slavitt (trans.), Broken Columns: Two Roman Epic Fragments:The Achilleid of Publius Papinius Statius and The Rape of Proserpine of Claudius Claudianus. With an Afterword by David Konstan.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.  Pp. 104.  ISBN 0-8122-3424-3.  $38.50 (hb).  ISBN 0-8122-1630-X.  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by P.J. Heslin, Trinity College, Dublin / Harvard University (
Word count: 3294 words

Halfway through the second book of De Raptu Proserpinae (hereafter DRP) Claudian describes at some length the overripe Sicilian bower whence his innocent heroine is about to be plucked away, and in its midst he places a lake, just as Ovid had done (Met. 5.385-6). Claudian's lake is pellucid and guileless, innocent of menace:

"[lacus] ... admittit in altum
cernentes oculos et late pervius umor
ducit inoffensos liquido sub flumine visus
imaque perspicui prodit secreta profundi"
(DRP 2.114-7)

In David Slavitt's version of these lines from his new book, which pairs translations of DRP and Statius' Achilleid (hereafter Ach.), the waters are not so much muddied as transformed into something else entirely; as Proserpine and her companions look into the pool they see not its bottom, but themselves:

"In the cool blue
of the lake's glassy surface, their images, inverted,
are picking the topsy-turvy simulacra of posies." (p. 56)

As it is so often the case with Slavitt, he gives us a skewed reflection of the texts he translates, sometimes upside-down, often beautiful, but one that hides much of the depth and sense of the Latin from view. In this new book, available at a reasonable price in paperback, Slavitt does a real service by putting into English verse for the first time this century two poems of great grace and charm. In his preface the author claims that this charm is what attracted him to the project, and it is his chief virtue as a translator that he always gives a sense of the liveliness and wit of which Statius and Claudian were capable.

Slavitt claims that his interest was first caught by the Achilleid and that he turned to Claudian's poem in order to fill out the volume, but the latter piece of work does not give the impression of being a makeweight; both display an equal enthusiasm. Slavitt does take a more dogmatic interpretive stand with DRP, reading it as an apology for paganism. The generic connection between these two miniature epics is deep, and yet Slavitt feels compelled to apologize for yoking them together in one volume (p. xii). Beside the fact that both authors were culturally Greek and yet wrote mostly in Latin, beside Claudian's incessant allusion to the Achilleid, and beside the many thematic congruities between the poems, there is of course the fact that both are unfinished. Hence the title; the cover reproduces in the background part of a Piranesi etching showing a ruined temple. This may be a more appropriate image than the designer realized; for, just as Piranesi's work has inspired a legion of purpose-built picturesque 'ruins,' it is not impossible that the unfinished state of the Achilleid inspired Claudian. After all, Claudian left his work unfinished not once but twice; there is a resumptive preface standing in front of the second book. Claudian himself even tropes the notion of a work of art left tragically incomplete in his description of Proserpine abandoning her weaving before her fatal outing, thus leaving the design forever unfinished. If Stephen Hinds is right and the Achilleid sketches the lineaments of an alternative potential course for the epic tradition, and if Claudian saw the challenge and rose to it, then these poems are not similarly mutilated pieces of flotsam, but rather they wilfully mark the bounds of an affiliation within the epic genre.1 If Slavitt had been more self-confident in his pairing of these two works, he might have highlighted in his own choice of phrasing their interdependence of language and thought; this is something, it must be said, that he does not do at all.

Slavitt is a fine poet, and one could multiply indefinitely examples where Slavitt has captured a phrase elegantly, such as in Achilles' "pillowed prison" (p. 21) among the maidens of Scyros, for Statius' imbelli carcere (Ach. 1.625). For Claudian's crastina puniceos cum lux detexerit ortus (DRP 1.222), Slavitt has "at the delicate hour when dawn / has turned the whole world into a pleasantly rumpled bed," (p. 48) which seems an odd choice of image, until we see how it leads neatly to the next thought: "He [Jupiter] sighed remembering beds he had rumpled." At his best Slavitt takes an effect deployed by the ancient author and substitutes a similar modern poetic idiom. Statius never wrote anything quite like "The place was older, sadder" (p. 10). But this brings the force of Statius' personifications home the way no literal translation of spelunca ... muta (Ach. 1.239-40) could.

Both poems can be quite funny, and Slavitt conveys their humor in vivid and concrete modern terms. When Statius pictures Thetis showing her son how to comport himself like a proper girl, so as to pass for her daughter, the transvestite Achilles is evoked not as an Amazon, but as a "field-hockey-captain type" (p. 13). On the occasion of the wedding of Pluto and Proserpine, Slavitt does perfect justice to Claudian's marvelous description of a ghouls' party, at which Charon "sings like a gondolier" (p. 63).

It will be no surprise to those familiar with Slavitt's work that his translations are very free. But the situation is somewhat different here from what it was, say, with his version of Ovid's Metamorphoses.2 There, Slavitt could play against Ovid and against his own predecessors, and if the result is sometimes more Slavitt than Ovid, there are any number of other translations the reader can consult to see what he was up to. I rather doubt that many classes studying Ovid, as opposed to translation theory, use Slavitt's version as a primary text. This volume, however, becomes by default the standard classroom translation of these two poems, and thus Slavitt's omissions and interpolations may take on somewhat greater weight.

When Slavitt has fun and takes leave of the Latin for an extended ramble, the result can be worth reading, as when he expands upon Statius' sarcasm regarding Greek war-mongering (pp. 14-15), or extends his meditations on love and death beyond what is in Claudian's text (p. 44). These digressions can also be amusing, as when Ulysses steps past the footlights of the Achilleid and wonders to himself, "how he signed on to be part of an epic and now is playing / his role in a farce" (p. 24). They can also be helpful, as when Slavitt poses for our benefit a question that Statius left implicit, asking whether Deidamia cries out in pleasure or in pain as she is raped by her erstwhile foster sister, Achilles (p. 21). Then there are the long digressions which have become for better or worse Slavitt's trademark: in lieu of translating a passage of conspicuous erudition, he makes an ironic comment upon it. So Claudian's account of Sicily is put in the voice of an unctuous tour guide, at least until he comes to Mt. Etna, whereupon the translator's interest in Claudian's text reawakens (pp. 45-6).

The fundamental problem is that these digressions do not simply augment, but rather supplant passages in the original, as may be seen from the way Slavitt's line numbers generally progress pari passu with the Latin text, despite the additional material. Much of what is omitted is matter that may be uncongenial to the modern poetic idiom, but it is essential to the kind of cultivated verse that Statius and Claudian were writing. Thus in grappling with Statius' quasi-Homeric catalogue of the cities of the Greeks that prepared for the mustering at Aulis, Slavitt entirely omits lines 1.407-411, and then elides most of the place names in the rest of the passage. This may be intended to make the poem more accessible, but by robbing the catalogue of its specificity, he renders it not more intelligible, but vaguer and colorless (p. 15).

In his afterword, David Konstan defends Slavitt's practice, arguing that it is better to omit the inessential and to convey the main point, rather than to leave a modern audience either mystified or adrift in a sea of footnotes (p. 80). There is some truth to this, but one difficulty of course is that opinions will differ over what may be thought essential. The irony here is that the occasion of Konstan's defense is his need to offer his own more literal translation of a certain passage in order to make his point. He discusses a reference that Slavitt had omitted to the myth according to which Thetis was compelled to marry and beget mortals not out of love, but as the price of Zeus' continued hegemony, a myth to which Statius alludes repeatedly from the first line of the poem. Evidently, even Slavitt and Konstan may differ on what they consider essential. I suspect that teachers using this book in the classroom, and I hope many will do so, will at frequent intervals similarly find themselves needing to supplement it with more literal versions of the passages they wish to read closely.

Konstan's afterword itself is a gem. Both of these poems have been well served by commentaries, particularly in English, but there has been precious little incisive interpretation of either. To begin almost ex nihilo and then to present an account of both poems which is not only cogent, but even subtle and compelling is a real accomplishment. The list of references for the afterword are the closest thing one could find today to a bibliography of scholarship on these poems, and will be a useful resource even for advanced students of Statius and Claudian. There is one typographical error in the references: read Vincenzo Tandoi for Tondoi. Since Konstan discusses at some length the theme of `the power of Thetis' in the Iliad (1.393-406) and in the Achilleid, it is surprising that he did not refer the reader to Laura Slatkin's book of that name.3

I think the real reason for Konstan's difficulty in making his point about Thetis is that in this regard Slavitt's characterization, which in its vividness is one of his greatest strengths, is at odds with the thrust of the poem. Statius carefully makes us aware of the distance of both Peleus and Thetis from their son, and he highlights instead the boy's relationship with surrogates, such as Chiron and Lycomedes. Out of gallantry or I know not what Slavitt appears to want to heal this family breach and so he elides Thetis' complaints about her marriage to Peleus (1.90), and mitigates her comments about Achilles' low birth (1.252-5). He also softens the implicit slights Achilles pays to his mother (1.195-6), and to his father (1.895). Moreover, when Achilles awakes from sleep to find himself no longer in Thessaly, but in Scyros, Statius says:

"omnia versa
atque ignota videt dubitatque agnoscere matrem."

Slavitt rather tendentiously renders this as:

"What's happened? Is this a dream? Is this his mother or some
oneiric figment?" (p. 10)

But Achilles is not so much wondering whether his mother is a dream or not, as he is confused to wake up next to this strange woman rather than his usual care-giver. These lines also put on display another of Slavitt's quirks, his taste for the occasional récherché word; 'oneiric' is not terribly appropriate here, as these questions are focalised by the young and rustic Achilles.

Generally, however, Slavitt's characterizations are faithful to the spirit of these two epics, whose tone is often vividly domestic. He captures the elderly Chiron's weary concern with a neat enjambment:

"I have had trouble myself with the lad, whose comportment is often
alarming." (p. 7)

Here is Ceres' sputtering outrage at the complicity of the virgin goddesses in her daughter's abduction:

"And you, Pallas, and you, Diana, aides and abettors,
were accomplices in this dirty business? Panderers! Pimps!
The towel girls of a bagnio!" (p. 72-3)

When Claudian's Jupiter explains his plans for mankind, he is bracingly plain-spoken:

"Our subject today is the sorry state of human affairs...
Ease and the life of leisure, my father thought would encourage
scholarship, the arts, and refinement of civilization
... these bounties turned them lazy and stupid." (pp. 64-5)

Direct speech gives Slavitt the opportunity to exercise his insight into character and his relish for rhetorical display; he is generally at his best in speeches. In several of these cases his translation advances our understanding of the poems. He cleverly sees that when Thetis mentions Helen's abduction to Lycomedes (Ach. 1.360-2), she is implying that she fears a similar fate may befall her 'daughter,' unless 'she' is kept well away from the shore. When Ulysses concludes his speech to Diomedes accepting the mission to find Achilles out, his words say 'if I cannot find him, then the prophet Calchas was inaccurate when he claimed that he was on Scyros' (1.550-2), but Slavitt had divined the real message: "'We can always shift the blame,' he says blandly, 'to Calchas'" (p. 19); it is an insight worthy of Ulysses.

It may seem churlish and mean-spirited to identify errors in a translation which does not pretend to a high degree of literality. There are nevertheless real mistakes, though most are not terribly serious. For the Achilleid, Slavitt was guided by Mozley's hoary, though not generally undependable Loeb text and translation. Though he mentions (p. x) relying on Dilke's edition, he should have done so more heavily, as Dilke is scrupulous in noting Mozley's errors. In this way Slavitt would have been advised that munus (Ach. 1.70) is not "the gift with which Venus rewards a compliment," but the ironical gift of scorn she pays to the gods of the sea. He would have been warned that Deidamia and her companions, "their hair woven with blossoms and carrying flower-decked spears," are in fact on their way to the shrine of Pallas thuswise to bedeck the statue of the goddess (Ach. 1.288-9). He would have found that the alternam...trieterida does not happen "every three years," but rather by inclusive reckoning, every other year. Slavitt may well be right to take famulis (1.948) as masculine with Mozley and against Dilke; but even so, ``pals'' (p. 31) suggests something much too close to social equals.

There are a few other missteps in the Achilleid that Slavitt makes without Mozley's help. A phrase in the dedication, magnusque tibi [Domitiano] praeludit Achilles (1.19) means the precise opposite of "you [Domitian], / from whom I extrapolate to Achilles' honor and strength." The extrapolation works the other way; Achilles, great though he is, is nothing but a warm-up to the far greater figure of the emperor. Such is our modern discomfort with the conventions of panegyric. I should also note that Slavitt's assertion that Scyros was the place where Aegaeon / Briareos was imprisoned is incorrect and confusing; Statius does not imply this, but merely says that Thetis happened to have noticed Lycomedes' palace at the time she was sent on a mission to the hundred-hander's place of confinement.4

Another error is more serious. Statius, changing the scene from Aulis back to Scyros where we had left Achilles in the company of Lycomedes' daughters, accomplishes the narrative transition with the following words:

At procul occultum falsi sub imagine sexus
Aeaciden furto iam noverat una latenti
Deidamia virum; sed opertae conscia culpae
cuncta pavet tacitasque putat sentire sorores. (1.560-3)

Deidamia has figured out that all is not as it appears with Achilles' 'sister,' but in the succeeding narrative, it is quite clear that even privately between herself and Achilles the fiction is strictly maintained (1.564-591). The picture we get of Deidamia from this 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude towards Achilles' gender is sympathetic: she is indulging in a little wilful self-delusion in order to prolong an idyllic pre-sexual infatuation. So, when Achilles rapes her, her world is shattered, and her situation is genuinely moving. In Slavitt' version of these events, Deidamia is merely stupid. While the two youths are spending time together, Achilles teaches his friend to play the lyre; the irony is that 'Achilles,' about whom they sing, is actually present (1.577-79). Slavitt misrepresents their discourse entirely:

"No doubt now. He confesses what she now knows for sure,
and tells her who he is, and putting it into a song,
recounts the details of his birth and childhood." (p. 19)

Statius contradicts this directly, and makes it clear that they were speaking of 'Achilles' in the third person, and even tells us how Deidamia managed to avoid situations that might permit Achilles to confess (1.586-7). Thus when he rapes her, and she is "horrified, in shock" (p. 22), Slavitt's readers may wonder why she is quite so surprised. Later, when Deidamia is wondering whether to report Achilles to her father, one of the factors she considers is the love she had and still has for him/her: et adhuc in corde manebat / ille diu deceptus amor (1.667-8). Slavitt tendentiously translates this as

"Has she not already imagined how this might one day happen
and dreamed with happy anticipation of how it would be?" (p. 22)

This looks very much like an attempt to fix one bad translation with another, to reconcile Deidamia's utter shock at Achilles' violence with his misattribution to the couple of a progressively developing and overtly romantic relationship.

When we move on to De Raptu Proserpinae, Slavitt has a much better guide than Mozley in the person of Claire Gruzelier, whose 1993 edition and translation is his starting-point.5 There are nevertheless a few phrases here too whose accuracy might be questioned. Slavitt calls the famous aerolith at Penissos associated with the Magna Mater a "holy statue," (p. 47) which it was not (religiosa silex, DRP 1.203), at least not before it arrived on the Palatine. He describes Proserpine in the company of Venus, Diana and Pallas as a "lovely young woman who'd look to be / also a goddess..." (p. 54) perhaps forgetting for a moment that she is in fact also a goddess. Slavitt is tireless at experimenting in surprising ways with transforming and breathing new life into the epic simile, but no such excuse can be made for the rendering of one simile (DRP 1.69-75) as plain narrative: a comparison of Pluto's anger with the North wind becomes nothing more than a description of the wind itself, a weather report, and completely pointless in the context (p. 43). I am curious as to why Slavitt (p. 50) adopts Parrhasius' reading of Aethon as the name of one of Pluto's horses instead of Jeep's emendation to Cthonius that recent editors have preferred (DRP 1.284). Finally, Slavitt as narrator intrudes upon the ecphrasis of Proserpine's tapestry to comment that it is meant to remind us of the work of Ovid's Arachne (p. 49), which is very precisely wrong. Surely her weaving in its classicising symmetry and totalizing ambition is meant to remind us of Pallas' competing design. The irony is that Proserpine's work like Claudian's will be left unfinished, will not achieve its symmetry, and will be supplanted by the weaving of the spider on her abandoned loom, as Arachne takes her small revenge at last (DRP 3.157-8).

These niggling complaints aside, I enjoyed reading this book. How others will like this translation will depend a lot on how well they like Slavitt's personality, because he has put a lot of himself in it. If you think a translator should efface himself from his work as as much as possible, if you think that supplementary material should be carefully sequestered from the text in footnotes, or even if you simply want a conservative but modern rendering of these poems to use for extended close reading in class, this may not be the book for you. But the greatest problem these works face is that they are not as widely read as they deserve, even among classicists. This book may begin to change that. I would urge anyone who thinks that Statius only wrote gruesome epic and Claudian only dull panegyric to read this slim and sprightly volume.


1.   See pp. 135-44 in Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: dynamics of appropriation in Roman poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
2.   The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated freely into verse by David R. Slavitt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
3.   Slatkin, Laura, The Power of Thetis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
4.   As Konstan notes in his afterword (pp. 81-2), the point of this is an allusion to Homer (Iliad 1.393-406) and, once again, to the tradition of the cosmic power of Thetis.
5.   Claudian, De Raptu Proserpinae, edited, with introduction, translation and commentary by Claire Gruzelier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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